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Spreading Truths and Debunking Myths on the AL MVP Race

It’s no secret that we are looking at one of the best races for a Most Valuable Player award, not just in Major League Baseball history, but in sports history. One of the best players in the world right now, on the cusp of completing one of the singular best seasons we’ve seen, versus the most polarizing player we have seen this side of the millennium. A player just a few measly homers away from breaking a 61-year-old (American League) record versus a player doing something at a level we have not seen in over a century. That is the Aaron Judge versus Shohei Ohtani MVP debate at its core.

Many will say “just give them both the MVP”, which is a beautiful thing to say in a harmonic world. That said, the likelihood of them splitting all 30 first AND second-place votes from the BBWAA is uber-unlikely. Hence, we are here, in a hotly contested race to the finish line for the award where the only way that one drops out of it is if one — both? — has a historically cold 17-game finishing stretch.

The historic nature of each of the two seasons make for an interesting MVP race. (Photo via Clutch Points)

Because of how historic and close a race is based on Judge and Ohtani’s seasons and, unfortunately, the teams and markets in which the two players play, there are numerous narratives that have been created. Some of them make sense, others are literally created for the sole purpose of spreading bias to make it seem like the race isn’t close. This isn’t the first time that the baseball world has gone rogue into a heated debate over an MVP debate, but it’s certainly the first time it has happened for such a contested race that will be talked about for decades to come.

If this debate is going to happen, it’s important to get everything right before the deadline of Oct. 6. That means it’s time to leave out the outside narratives and get straight to the point. Here are the truths and myths of the 2022 AL MVP debate.

Truth: Shohei Ohtani is doing things we have never seen before and should be awarded as such

Since Babe Ruth became a full-time hitter with the Yankees, there have been very few two-way players in AL/NL history (multiple Negro Leaguers, such as Ted Radcliffe and John Willams, were two-way players). From the offset of World War II to pre-Ohtani, there were just two players that had reached 10 games pitched and 200 plate appearances in a single season: René Monteaguo (1945) and Willie Smith (1964). Many pitchers have been serviceable hitters while others made full-time switches from position players to pitchers or vice versa, but none had played both sides of the ball well at the same time.

Until Ohtani.

In just his rookie season after five years in Nippon Professional Baseball, he put up a .925 OPS and 149 wRC+ while also pitching to a 3.31 ERA and 3.65 SIERA in 51.2 innings. While he had Tommy John surgery late that season that would essentially shut down his pitching for the next two seasons, the combined 3.8 fWAR was enough to run away with the Rookie of the Year Award.

Since then, he has had consecutive elite seasons on both sides (8.0 and 8.1, respectively), including a 2022 season on the mound that has not only been his best but has been one of the best in baseball. As a designated hitter, his 146 wRC+ (.891 OPS and .375 wOBA) is worth 3.7 fWAR, while a 2.43 ERA (62 ERA-), 2.44 FIP, and 2.69 SIERA have compiled into a 5.0 fWAR pitching season, the fifth best in all of baseball. Along with MVP talks, he will certainly be in the discussion for the AL Cy Young Award as well.

It is a run that has broken the All-Star Game (every year, he has to steal one of the 34 spots), broke fantasy baseball and forced MLB to create the “Ohtani Rule”, where a starting pitcher may stay in the game as the designated hitter.

In his MLB career, he is worth 13.1 fWAR as a designated hitter (and 8.1 2021 innings in the outfield) and 8.9 as a pitcher. No other player in their career other than Ruth, Bob Caruthers and Red Ruffing compete with that fWAR total among pitchers. Oh, by the way, he’s also really fast, sitting in the 28 ft/s sprint speed range his entire career.

Truly, this is something that generations of baseball fans have never seen in their lives. MVP or not, there is no underestimating how legendary it is and how important it is for the Angels or any team that acquires him. In fact, there is no way the Angels should allow such a generational talent to leave unless Ohtani himself doesn’t want to be there.

With that alone, he should be honored every year he does both at an All-Star level. That said, should an individual season award be that honor?

Myth: As long as Ohtani is doing this, he should earn MVP every year

As good as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was in 2021, his primary hitting valued season as a first baseman had no chance of competing with an elite two-way player. Ohtani earned, deserved and received the 2021 award.

Presuming that Ohtani keeps his ridiculous 2022 pace, the only realistic way that someone else earns the award is if someone else has such an elite or borderline historic season that makes the race that much closer.  However, if he eventually begins to diminish as both a hitter or a pitcher, or tremendously at one of the two (but still is a two-way player), that should also allow someone to enter the race.

Which leaves a very important question not just for 2022, but potentially the next decade or beyond: where are those bars? What level of elite does another player have to be before Ohtani isn’t in the race for MVP? What level of two-way player does Ohtani have to be where he can’t be in the MVP race? And the most important question relating to current events: is Judge at that level?

Aside from having only the second legitimate chase to 60 home runs since Bonds in 2001, he is having one of the greatest hitting seasons in the sport’s history. He outclasses every other player in baseball in almost every offensive category. His 59 homers as of Sep. 18 are 20 more than anyone else in the sport. He will likely finish the season batting well over .300, relatively close to, if not winning, the Triple Crown (for whatever its worth). Even if his 210 wRC+ is slightly inflated by a heavily deteriorated run environment, he has a 1.120 OPS, in the midst of one of the worst offensive seasons (.310 league-wide wOBA) since the 1968 disaster class of hitting. Just two other players are over 1.000, and just eight with more than 350 plate appearances are over .900.

He has done it all while remaining an above-average baserunner, playing good defense in the outfield (73rd percentile Outs Above Average), and somehow underperforming (ever so slightly) his expected stats. If he finishes with a 10 fWAR season, he’d be just the 55th player in baseball history with a 10 WAR season, just the eighth in the 21st century, and just the fourth (Mike Trout and Mookie Betts) by active players.

If it was a season that happened in most other years in the last decade in the American or National League, it is an MVP season, and unless the competition is 2012, 2013 or 2018 Mike Trout or 2018 Mookie Betts, there’s very little debate. But because he’s going against 2022 Shohei Ohtani, it makes it that much more difficult.

Is Judge’s historic season enough to “dethrone” Ohtani? If it is, is that fair? What if someone had a similar season without the threat of breaking a long-standing record, or in a more offense-dominant era? Would this still be the case? And what if it isn’t enough to dethrone him? Does someone need to have a Bonds-ian season or does has to be 37 and be the 40th-best pitcher and/or the 60th-best designated hitter before he can “fairly” lose out on an MVP?

If it is the latter, what’s the solution? Giving Ohtani a new “best two-way player” is completely counterintuitive and shows nothing unless someone like him is competing for the award. It is probably better to put more value on the Hank Aaron Award for the best offensive player (an award Judge will receive in the American League), which will not only solve the debate with Ohtani but would’ve solved multiple MVP disputes. However, the Hank Aaron Award, or any award that goes to the “best” player instead of the “most valuable”, would never be as prestigious and important as the MVP award.

Whatever the case may be, the decision in this MVP race will not only be important for 2022, but will essentially decide the next ten American League (or, potentially, National League) MVPs.

Truth: WAR does not properly show Ohtani’s Value

“If, the thinking goes, he’s not getting credit for being two players in one, perhaps his MVP candidacy should be boosted. So: Is that what’s happening? The short answer is: Maybe a little, but probably not by very much. The long answer is … complicated.”

Mike Petriello

For nearly the last decade and a half, the first stat that is mentioned when discussing the MVP (or any award) is Wins Above Replacement (WAR), whether it’s the Baseball Reference or Fangraphs version. It is certainly a great “all-in-one” stat that has changed baseball, however, the belief that one stat should ever determine an award is damning.

It’s especially true when the award is between a historic outfielder (with substantial time in center) and a historic two-way pitcher and designated hitter. It’s because both versions of WAR invoke positional adjustments that make it impossible for Ohtani to compete with a historical season such as Judge’s.

The gist of positional adjustments, which affects Runs Above Average (RAA) and wRAA, which in turn affects WAR, is that more value goes into key positions (shortstop, catcher, center field) than with positions that aren’t as tough (first baseman, designated hitter). These differ on both models of the stat, but both stats heavily penalize designated hitters, first basemen, and corner outfielders. It’s the reason why Matt Olson, despite never having a DRS (Baseball-Reference), UZR, RAA (Fangraphs), or OAA (aside from 2020), has never had a dWAR over 0.7. It’s also why he has never been a positive value defender, according to Fangraphs.

Baseball’s advanced analytics do not necessarily reflect Ohtani’s unique status as a two-way player. (Photo via Eric Dorst/Flickr)

While the positional adjustment — which is based on a full 162-game season — for center field (+2.5) helps Judge (albeit his innings in right field take a -7.5 hit), designated hitters are significantly hit more than any other position, and this is especially true for Fangraphs (-17.5). Whether it should be that low or not is a discussion for another article, but as it is, it really affects Ohtani. Since the eponymously named rule debuted this season, he has only taken plate appearances as a pitcher and a designated hitter, with all but a twentieth (0.5%) of his turns coming as a DH. Essentially, every time he’s in the lineup as a DH, that -17.5 (or -15.0 on Baseball Reference) will have an effect. But should that same adjustment exist for someone who will also likely throw 150 innings on the mound and, for what it’s worth, hold his ground as a solid defensive pitcher as well?

Additionally, neither WAR is particularly good for pitchers. Baseball-Reference’s version uses runs allowed (both earned and unearned) and innings pitched, then uses multiple factors to compare the pitcher to a replacement level pitcher. Fangraphs starts with FIP, which is a good stat for predicting future outcomes but isn’t the best for measuring historical performance. Neither help Ohtani as much, partially because of park factors that actually state Angel Stadium is a hitter’s park, but also, because, as part of a six-man rotation, he will never throw as many innings as many of the other pitchers in the league. Therefore, his 5.0 fWAR and 5.3 rWAR as a pitcher, while still great, don’t really project what he has done.

Those are reasons why his combined WAR, while still elite at 8.1 on Fangraphs and 8.7 — which is just 0.5 off of Judge — on Baseball Reference, is a case where it doesn’t tell the full story of an elite two-way player.

Myth: This wouldn’t be a race if Judge played for [insert any other American League team other than the Red Sox here]

Let’s just get this one out of here and never talk about it again.

Guerrero Jr. had a conversation for MVP, fair or not, while the only thing he had over Ohtani was a moderate offensive advantage. To say that one of the greatest hitting seasons — a potential 10 WAR, 200 wRC+, 60+ home run and a near or complete Triple Crown — wouldn’t induce a conversation for the MVP Award if he did it for the Cleveland Guardians or Pittsburgh Pirates is an asinine take that shouldn’t be considered.

It certainly aids the “Judge has run away with the MVP” discussions that currently flood the East Coast, and that’s a valid argument to make. That is certainly an East Coast-based narrative that adds to the current toxicity of the debates. Make no mistake, this MVP race isn’t done. However, the only way seasons like Judge’s are not MVP-worthy is when they’re competing with the Bonds and Ruths of baseball.

Truth: We are more likely to see what Judge is doing again than Ohtani

A Judge season is in rarified air, and yet, Ohtani as a player is even higher in the air. (Photo via AP)

Personally, I am of the firm belief that we will see more two-way players in Major League Baseball. However, the likelihood that we ever see another Ohtani or Ruth in baseball in the near future, much less in the upcoming decades, is low as it is. It took a century for another Ruth to come along in the first place, and all of the potential two-way players that have followed — Hunter Greene, Brendan McKay, Jared Walsh, Christian Bethancourt, etc. — have all either transitioned or been forced into one role due to injury or underperformance in one (which also proves how hard it is to do this). Again, this is something that we cannot deny, and if this is one of the arguments for MVP, then Ohtani has to be your Most Valuable player.

That said, while Ohtani is a historical player, it’s important to not diminish how rare a season like Judge’s is. If he does hit 60 or more home runs, it’ll be the ninth 60 home run season in Major League history. As previously mentioned, there haven’t been many 10 fWAR seasons. Consider this as well: if he remains at or above a 200 wRC+ (210) at the end of the season, it would be just the second qualified non-Bonds 200 wRC+ season since 2000. The only other one in that timeframe? Juan Soto and his 196 plate appearances in the 2020 season.

What Judge is doing this season is astonishing and rare. The problem is the MVP race is literally a type of player we probably aren’t seeing for a long while once he’s done.

Myth: Judge plays on a winning team, therefore he should be the MVP/Ohtani plays on a bad team, he can’t win the MVP

“The only time that a team out of the playoffs has a player that should win an MVP is when there is no one close to what he’s doing.”

Michael Kay, The Michael Kay Show

Yeah, if we’re using the same partial criteria that took away an MVP from Ted Williams in 1941.

Let me take you back to the 2017 National League MVP race between Giancarlo Stanton and Joey Votto. Votto had one of the most underrated elite seasons of all time, but Stanton, who had a similar season and was one homer on the last day of the season away from becoming the first player since Bonds to hit 60 in a season, came away with the MVP by two points.

Not only did both of them watch October baseball from their homes, but neither of their teams were relatively close to it. The Reds finished last in the NL Central at 68-94, while the Marlins were second in the NL East, 20 games behind the 97-65 Washington Nationals. In terms of the Fangraphs version of WAR, Kris Bryant and Nolan Arenado, who both made the postseason with their teams, both had just as much of a case but didn’t come anywhere close in the voters’ eyes.

Also, “team impact” is rarely used as a thermometer by most voters for the award as we head deeper into the 21st century. The 2019 AL award went to Mike Trout, despite Alex Bregman having a strong individual case and being on the best team in the American League. Both awards just last season went to two players whose seasons ended in early October, and the top three in both voting results for each league were all players that missed the postseason (including Ohtani and Juan Soto, whose teams both missed out by a lot).

Even if WAR is supposed to be that formula of value, there is no way to fully quantify a player’s value and worth to their team in a sport as unpredictable as baseball. It’s unfair to take the incompetent ownership and management of the Angels and use it on Ohtani’s case for an individual award. Moreover, it is unfair to assume that taking Judge away from the Yankees automatically makes them a fringe playoff team or worse, or that if the two players switched teams, they would be the exact same.

In other words: the Most Valuable Player is an individual award, which means — especially in the sport of baseball — team accomplishments should not be considered.

Myth: Judge/Ohtani is the MVP, and it isn’t close at all

Despite what the oddsmakers in Vegas and the folks that live on Twitter say, neither player should be walking away with the award right now. Making this broad statement and turning this race into an argument diminishes the appreciation for what both players have done.

The reality is that, at this very moment, the AL MVP race is very close. In a non-Shohei world, where every player in the league is either a position player or a pitcher, there is no discussion, but because an elite two-way player exists, we are in for a historic battle. If there are loud voices from each corner of supporters, that likely means that the race is significantly closer than what the extremes want to believe.

Where does that leave us: two amazing seasons engaged in a race that, unless one of them falls into a deep slump at the end of the season, will come down to Game 162. And it’s possible that whoever wins MVP could have deep ramifications for the award moving forward.

Follow Payton Ellison on Twitter (@realpmelli14). Personally, he has no preference on who wins the award and would prefer that at least one is a New York Yankee in 2023.

Payton Ellison

Payton Malloy Ellison is a recent graduate from SUNY New Paltz with a degree in journalism. He has been writing his entire life, and about sports in various genres and settings for five years, starting with monthly coverage for the NBA and Major League Baseball on Grrindtime. He has been the Managing Editor for Diamond Digest for two years, written and edited articles produced live content and assisted in growing the brand for four years. He has also served as the sports director for the New Paltz campus radio station, WFNP The Edge, and had provided play-by-play and color commentary for SUNY New Paltz basketball.

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